A dozen journalists sat in a circle sharing their latest updates with the newsroom. They talked about who they interviewed, what they learned through their reporting, what challenges they came across in reporting for their stories, and what steps lie ahead before completing their individual 2-3 minute radio segments.
They were tackling big story ideas: Whether misogyny can be reversed through education; the therapy that playing and creating music provides; or a story on black men in the North Lawndale community who have HIV and how any changes to the Affordable Care Act will affect them.
These journalists are as young as they are bold. They’re the reporters behind Free Spirit Media’s “Real Chi Youth” program and they’re all in their late teens to early twenties. Their newsroom is on the 11th floor of the original Sears Tower, Nichols Tower, in Homan Square, which also greeted the students’ mentors from City Bureau that Tuesday afternoon.
Free Spirit Media are fellow recent McCormick grantees and IL Humanities supported their Real Chi Youth program last year with a grant for student journalists to report on Chicago’s South and West sides. They are also currently working on a documentary on the statewide story of public education entitled “What About Us? A Compendium on Equity in Public Education,” which features scenes and discussions from our Continuing Ed. series. They will screen parts of the documentary at our roundtable on Wednesday, May 17th at the Union League Club.
Chelsea Corbin, Free Spirit Media’s Development & Communications Manager, said the students who traveled across the state for the series found it to be “an opportunity to meet with and engage with other parts of the state.”
“I’ve been lucky,” she said. “I get to talk to young people about their stories, and what always impresses me the most is the boldness of young people and their ferocity in tackling tough stories and seeing them through.”
The upcoming “What About Us?” documentary is just one of several projects students are working on. And at the core of the program is students telling their own stories, which can in turn challenge the narratives that mainstream media feeds.
In a short documentary called “Creative Control” from last fall, Real Chi Youth students explored Chicago’s ongoing creative renaissance amid news stories of a violent city that’s smothered by news reports of shootings and instances of police brutality.
Nichols Tower is Chicago’s tallest building on the West Side. From the newsroom, one can see that the tower is surrounded by the remnants of Sears mail-order facilities, which left for the loop in the ‘70s along with their jobs. To the south, the infamous Homan Square is in view, which is where protestors held last summer’s “Freedom Square,” for which the young filmmakers debuted “Creative Control.”
“We challenge our youth reporters to disrupt narratives and tell their stories,” Corbin said. “On the micro-level, the way the West and the South Sides are portrayed in mainstream media affects the young people: it perpetuates stereotypes and it only reports certain kinds of stories.”
The process is integral to the students’ work. There aren’t traditional teachers so much as mentors who make the classroom feel more balanced and equal. The students’ primary audience is each other, which Corbin said gives them “the space and the ears to express themselves.”
“People are the experts of their own experiences,” Corbin said. And from Free Spirit Media’s work, it’s critical to see how need the news from the experts themselves.
As for what’s on the horizon, Free Spirit Media is just launching Pathways Certification — which includes 12 weeks of programming for ten 18-to-25 year-olds to learn from professionals and matches students with mentors — and they announced their summer internship applications for 2017.
To keep posted on the students’ stories, be sure to check their blog or to follow them on Twitter. You can see scenes from their upcoming documentary at our final event for our yearlong, statewide series Continuing Ed., which is a roundtable on Wednesday, May 17th at the Union League Club.
Photos are from Free Spirit Media.